After the June terror attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the LGBTQ community and its allies united to support victims of the shooting, raising $15 million in relief funds by the end of the month. As a drag performer, I was proud to see my sister queens become leaders in this effort, not only organizing dozens of benefit events in Orlando, here in New York City, and elsewhere, but also speaking out about queer safety issues—both on stage and across social media.
But as the weeks and months pass, many newly minted drag activists—myself included—are drifting back to their regularly scheduled programming, leaving LGBTQ political issues out of their professional lives. Now that the conversation around Orlando has drifted from immediate relief efforts to broader, more complex and long-term issues like gun control, it’s easy to feel that we queens are out of our depth. After all, a drag queen is an entertainer. She isn’t required to be a full time LGBTQ activist, is she?
Well, maybe not required, but it’s not without precedent. From tales about the launch of the Stonewell rebellion to the recent story of “accidental” drag activists like Panti Bliss, there is a long-standing desire to see queens as firebrands and leaders in the queer community. So for some perspective, I spoke to two noted queens who have made activism a cornerstone of their careers: Ambrosia Starling and Bob The Drag Queen.
If anyone knows about the life of an activist queen, it’s Ambrosia Starling of Dothan, Alabama. Her platform of choice is not the pageant stage but the picket line. Though she has been a muckraker for many years, Starling first drew national attention in May when the Rachel Maddow Show covered her campaign against Alabama’s anti-gay chief justice, Roy Moore, who has, in violation of the Supreme Court, tried to block same-sex marriage in his state. Painted, coiffed, and clad in a mini dress, Starling organized protests until Moore was suspended following an Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission investigation. And though she was not the only voice that won his removal, she was a powerful enough presence that he publicly nodded to her—a “professed transvestite”—as a cause of his travail, giving her, ironically, yet another jolt of fame.
Starling’s battle with Moore is an inspiring example of what one queen can do. But for Starling, the story doesn’t end there. Whether she’s in the national spotlight or joining a local Pride gig, she continues to advocate for queer rights in Alabama and beyond. In the past weeks, she has used her visibility not only to raise money for Orlando victims, but also to inspire audiences to think about what’s next. “I try to make sure that each time I go to a public event I tell these children: Standing and breathing and living here today, you have an opportunity that 49 people do not,” Starling told me. “Make it count—participate. If we do not use the rights we already have, they will not give us more.”
When I asked Starling if she thought all drag queens were obligated to take on activist work, I was surprised by her elegantly pragmatic answer. Looking back, she described how her work as a queen helped her make ends meet when her day job wasn’t cutting it. “You pick up the phone and call a bar to see if they have room for you,” Starling told me. “They don’t know what they’re doing for you—that you can’t pay your bills, that there’s no food in the house. But my community in this little bitty town for 23 years has kept my lights on. How do I not pay that back?” For Starling, activism is not a sacred duty for queens; it’s simply a reasonable response to the support they receive from queer people every day. It’s merely, as Starling herself might put it, “good manners.”
Bob The Drag Queen, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8—and, as I’ve written before, my drag mother—might be more well-known than Starling but she’s equally committed to activism. Miss The Drag Queen has been engaged in queer activism since the start of her career. In 2010, she helped launch Drag Queen Weddings, a series of weekly demonstrations demanding marriage equality. Today, her Queen for the People logo appears on events benefitting LGBTQ organizations like Trinity Place Shelter, which helps help homeless LGBTQ youth and young adults in New York City to safely transition out of the shelter system.
When I asked her why she felt compelled to do activist work, her answer was simple. “The first time I got on the train in full drag I realized that every single person—every single person—stopped dead in their tracks to look at me. I didn’t even say anything. All I did was stand on the train,” Bob told me. “And I thought to myself, Well, now that I have everyone’s attention I should say something meaningful.” And so she has, helping to make the past season of Drag Race one of the more socially engaged seasons to date.
Both Starling and Bob are quick to say that their missions are personal, and that no queen is necessarily bound to activist work. Sometimes, however, their words belie a longing not only for more politically engaged queens, but also for politically engaged queers. “I don’t think it’s everyone’s job to be an activist. For me, I feel it is my duty, but I don’t get down on everyone else who doesn’t do it,” Bob told me. But she added: “I might ask someone how important their rights are to them, and ask are going to wait for some politician to make things right, or are you doing to do the most extreme form of lobbying that there is?”
For Starling, today’s queer community seems more focused on boundaries and divisions than solidarity, and she senses a complacency that worries her. “So much of queer activism came to a screeching halt in 1985 because everyone that was doing the activism was dying, but in some ways we were a tighter and better community when we were worried about how to keep each other out of the nursing home at 30,” Starling explained. “Now when I look around, I don’t see us looking out for each other the way we used to.”
It’s impossible to know whether queens and their allies will continue to act up and give back to the queer community as Orlando begins to drop out of the news cycle. And no queen is obligated to take up any cause or do any service as she struggles to make ends meet in a less-than-lucrative profession. But after talking to Starling about getting engaged politically, I keep remembering one of her remarks about elected officials. “You exist at the whim of your supporters,” she told me. “You owe them everything.” Perhaps that statement applies to us queens, as well.